2017 Major Year for Next-Generation In-flight Wi-Fi Installs

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | January 12, 2017
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[Avionics Magazine 01-12-2017] 2017 will be a major year for assessing the performance of next-generation in-flight connectivity technology, according to the 2017 Wi-Fi report published by Routehappy Jan. 12. Currently more than 70 airlines worldwide offer in-flight Wi-Fi, and most of the major international carriers are upgrading their onboard technology to meet consumer demand for faster speeds, more bandwidth and reliability. 
The annual Routehappy report uses a combination of Available Seat Miles (AVS) of flights equipped with Wi-Fi, airline upgrade plans and availability of IFC on long-haul versus short-haul routes to assess the global state of in-flight cabin-based connectivity. Here is a break down of the latest statistics regarding Wi-Fi equipped aircraft as a percentage of ASMs, upgrade plans and regional trends. 
A passenger using in-flight connectivity in Finnair's A350 business class. Photo: Finnair.

Rest of World Still Lags U.S.

Tracking the data through January 2017, a total of 39 percent of available seat miles have a chance of at least featuring some type of in-flight connectivity, an increase of 8 percent compared to the percentage of Wi-Fi-enabled ASMs reported by Routehappy last year. According to Routehappy, that’s an increase of “more than 1 billion available seat miles per day with at least a chance of Wi-Fi vs. last year.”
The latest report also indicates that carriers based in regions outside of the U.S. still greatly lag behind the world’s biggest concentration of Wi-Fi-equipped airliners. Right now, passengers boarding U.S.-based airliner aircraft have an 83 percent chance of getting on a flight featuring IFC, based on the latest available ASMs — a 6 percent increase for American carriers.  
However, when looking solely at ASMs for carriers based outside the U.S., only 18.5 percent of ASMs feature cabin Wi-Fi for passenger use. Routehappy attributes this factor to “technological obstacles” such as lack of availability of Air To Ground (ATG) networks in countries outside of the U.S. that the group’s researchers feel are now being overcome.
European carriers are starting to catch up to their U.S. counterparts, though, the report notes. British Airways, for example, is equipping its aircraft with new ATG technology that is compatible with a new ATG network being built throughout the European Union (EU) by Deutsche Telekom. 
Finnair, Lufthansa, Air France and KLM have all also committed to adding new IFC technology to their aircraft in coming years. 
Middle Eastern carriers are making major strides as well, with Emirates, Etihad and Qatar adding a combined 174 million ASMs with at least of chance of featuring Wi-Fi in 2016. Comparatively, Delta and United added a combined 158 million new ASMs featuring Wi-Fi last year.
Emirates also individually leads the world in terms of ASMs on long-haul flights. United Airlines comes in second and is also one of only seven carriers globally to feature Wi-Fi on 100 percent of its long-haul flights. Delta, Etihad, Iberia, Icelandair, Lufthansa and Scoot also offer Wi-Fi on every long-haul flight, according to Routehappy.
“Several major global airlines that did not make the top 20 such as British Airways, Air France, KLM, Finnair, and Qantas, have made nearly fleet-wide Wi-Fi commitments, but have yet to deploy the technology on a wide scale. While these airlines may be later to adopt Wi-Fi, they all chose best-in-class systems that meet their strategic needs,” the report says.

Next Generation In-flight Wi-Fi

Most of the world’s biggest carriers internationally and regionally are making commitments to equip their aircraft with next-generation IFC technology. The report notes that the biggest technological obstacle for carriers based in heavily populated areas outside the U.S., such as Europe, the Asia Pacific and Latin America, is a lack of available ATG networks. Equipping aircraft with ATG-based hardware is less costly than satellite-based technology, although the tradeoff there in recent years has been performance, with most older IFC technology featuring slower speeds with low reliability. 
But the lack of ATG is changing, and other carriers are deciding that the investment in high-speed satellite-based Wi-Fi is worth the cost as well. 
“Deutsche Telekom’s high-speed air-to-ground network is being built throughout the European Union and UK, and British Airways will use this network starting in mid-2017; SAS and Finnair have also tapped ViaSat for its European Wi-Fi. All these systems are pending installation in thousands of aircraft,” the report says. 
ViaSat is known for claiming to have the industry’s fastest available airliner cabin IFC, with its Exede service capable of delivering 12 megabits per second (Mbps) to each passenger “no matter how many connect,” the Exede Internet data sheet reads. However, the company is facing major next-generation IFC competition. 
Some of the industry’s biggest IFC aircraft hardware manufacturers, such as Honeywell Aerospace with JetWave and Gogo with its 2Ku technology, have all committed to introducing or already have introduced next-generation technology that can compete with or exceed ViaSat’s service. Gogo, for example, has reported connection speeds of more than 12 Mbps during testing of its dual-antenna satellite-based internet technology 2kU, and airlines are responding. Through December, Gogo reported commitments by 14 different airlines to equip more than 1,500 aircraft with 2Ku, and it is already installed on 83 in-service aircraft.   
Inmarsat, which manages the Global Xpress (GX) Ka-band network enabled by Honeywell’s JetWave hardware, has also reported significant interest in its next-generation IFC technology. Lufthansa has already gone live with a soft launch of GX Aviation, and Norwegian and Air New Zealand signed up for GX Aviation during the 2016 APEX Expo.  

While many major carriers as previously noted have made commitments to next-generation satellite-based solutions, there are next-generation ATG solutions that provide formidable competition. SmartSky Networks, for example, has publicly noted it is in talks with airlines about its 4G beamforming technology using 60 MHz of wireless spectrum with cell towers rather than satellites. The latest information released on SmartSky’s website has indicated that its U.S.-based nationwide ATG network is “substantially rolling out in 2017.” 

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